It’s another busy Saturday on tap in college basketball as teams jockey for position and an invitation to March Madness. Here is a preview of three marquee games involving the cream of the Saturday crop, and a quick glance at the abbreviated Sunday slate.
No. 4 North Carolina at No. 21 Boston College
9:00 p.m. (ET), ESPN
The Tar Heels are one of the best teams in the nation, but they’re still young and they still have a tendency to lose focus. After suffering the humiliation of losing at N.C. State (+16.5) earlier this month, North Carolina welcomed Virginia Tech (+15) last Tuesday and came up on the short end of an 81-80 overtime final. Those two upsets dropped the Heels to 16-7 against the spread, still good for eighth place in the ATS standings.
Losing to the Hokies should be incentive enough for North Carolina to shape up. If it isn’t, then going on the road to face the Eagles should do the trick. Boston College has usurped the Heels’ place on top of the ACC at 9-3 straight up (North Carolina is 8-3, along with the Hokies and Virginia). But there’s something of a talent gap between these two teams. North Carolina is ranked No. 3 in RPI; the Eagles are listed at No. 26, and they’re just 7-6 versus teams in the Top 100.
Not that Boston College will roll over for the Heels, especially after losing to Duke this past Wednesday at the Silvio O. Conte Forum. The Eagles remain a dangerous team with a well-balanced offense, even after the dismissal of promising center and blockmeister Sean Williams in January. Still, B.C. turned the ball over 19 times against Duke; North Carolina coach Roy Williams will no doubt be looking at the tape of that one to see how the Blue Devils managed to get their defensive timing down on B.C.’s usually crisp passing.
No. 15 Southern Illinois at No. 12 Butler
4:00 p.m. (ET), ESPN2
These two mid-majors aren’t going to be sneaking up on anyone at the Tournament. The Salukis are ripping up the Missouri Valley Conference, winning eight straight to improve their record to 22-5 SU (14-11 ATS). This is no list of pushovers, either; the MVC is loaded with talented teams, which is why Southern Illinois has earned the No. 9 spot in the RPI rankings.
Butler, coming out of the Horizon League, doesn’t have the same quality of opposition to keep the team honest. The Bulldogs are in the polls (and still hanging around at No. 31 on the RPI list) because of their very impressive non-con schedule; beating the likes of Indiana and Tennessee is a good way to get noticed. Yet Butler continues to do very well at the pay window, covering the spread in eight of the last nine games to go to 17-6, the most profitable record in the nation. The Bulldogs have been favored by at least 10 points on 10 occasions this season; they failed to cover just once.
We’ll see just how good Butler truly is when the Salukis come calling. SIU is ranked just 99th in defense, allowing opponents to connect on 42.4% of their field goals. But that number is a red herring as the Salukis are so good at smothering perimeter shooters, their opponents only manage to make 18.4 buckets per game. That’s the lowest number in all of Division I, and bad news for a Butler squad that loves to jack up 3-pointers.
No. 16 Georgetown at Villanova
12:00 p.m. (ET), ESPN
The Wildcats aren’t in the polls, and the Hoyas are. That suits handicappers just fine. As far as RPI is concerned, Villanova isn’t just the better team, it’s one of the best at No. 15, compared to No. 19 for Georgetown. Why the disparity? Timing, mostly.
Villanova beat the Hoyas in Georgetown back on Jan. 8, winning 56-52 as a 5½-point road dog. Georgetown has won eight of nine since, while the ‘Cats are struggling to beat lesser Big East opponents.
Villanova has played better of late, though, out-rebounding opponents and watching sophomore forward Dante Cunningham blossom. As for the Hoyas, they’ve taken to coach John Thompson III’s Princeton offense like ducks to water. But their style also makes for a pretty slow matchup this Saturday. The under is on a roll for both teams, and easily cashed in when they met in January. Watch for more of the same this time around as the punishing Hoyas collide with the experienced ‘Cats.
Sunday's schedule finds a trio of Top 25 squads in action, along with one key ACC battle that, while it doesn't involve currently ranked teams, could still figure heavily into the tournament selection process:
- No. 2 Ohio State at Minnesota - 1:00 p.m., CBS - The Buckeyes look to extend their 10-game win streak. The Gophers are struggling, but Ohio State can't afford to look past them to next week's showdown with Wisconsin.
- No. 23 USC at Arizona State - 8:00 p.m. - The Sun Devils, mired in a 15-game losing streak and coming off a disappointing loss Thursday to UCLA, would love to pick up their first PAC-10 win of the season against the Trojans.
- No. 25 Virginia Tech at North Carolina St - 4:00 p.m. - The Hokies are still very much in contention for the ACC regular season title, and look to avenge a home loss to the Wolf Pack at the end of January.
- Georgia Tech at Duke - 1:00 p.m., CBS - The other half of CBS' regional broadcast, both of these squads are struggling just to stay at .500 in the ACC. The Yelloe Jackets topped the Blue Devils at home in early January, and would love to sweep the season series.